Inspired by the art of Csontváry

Today I’d like to write about one of my favourite painters. I must have been 12 when I first saw his large sized paintings.  They made quite an impact on me.

Csontváry (1853-1919), was born in Hungary the same year as Van Gogh, had a similar life, and as a painter was his equal (in my opinion). Unfortunately his contemporaries did not understand the symbolism of his vision. He was a loner and a schizophrenic.

c. 1900
Oil on canvas, 67 x 39,5 cm
Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest

At the age of 27 Csontváry had a vision. A voice told him he was going to become the biggest sunway painter (in his words), bigger than Raffaello. Nobody knows what he meant by “sunway”. He worked for more than 10 years as a pharmacist to make enough money to support himself as a painter. He was 41 when he set out for Paris, but like Van Gogh, didn’t stay long at the Academy. Like Gauguin, he yearned for something pure and simple, but he found the exotic in the people and nature of  the Middle East.

Old Fisherman
Oil on canvas, 59,5 x 45 cm
Herman Ottó Museum, Miskolc



Csontváry painted thousand year old cedars in Lebanon, this one here is one of the best, titled “The Solitary Cedar”. The tree personifies him, the lonely artist, misunderstood and ridiculed by many.  The sheer size of this canvas, and the incredibly vibrant colours left me breathless and speechless. I felt small and insignificant, overpowered by his art.

The Solitary Cedar
Oil on canvas, 194 x 248 cm
Janus Pannonius Museum, Pécs

He held about three exhibits in his lifetime, largely ignored by the public and the press. He probably never sold a painting. Because of lack of success and loneliness he slowly descended into mental illness and was unable to paint another painting.


Oil on canvas, 385 x 714,5 cm
Janus Pannonius Museum, Pécs (loan)

After his death he remained unknown for a very long time due to most of his work being owned by a private collector. Today his collection is exhibited in national galleries in Hungary.

Pilgrimage to the Cedars in Lebanon
Oil on canvas, 200 x 205 cm
Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest


12 thoughts on “Inspired by the art of Csontváry

  1. Heliopoli May 18, 2008 / 14:05

    Very interesting post. I hadn’t heard of him before. I love the term “sunway.” I’d say that “The Solitary Cedar” has much sunway in it.


  2. 100swallows May 18, 2008 / 14:05

    I can see how these pictures might impress you. I wish I could stand before The Solitary Cedar as you did. Probably it loses a lot so reduced in size, but even so it is impressive.

    Those colors are bright and surprising. But not as surprising as Van Gogh’s, nor even as Gauguin’s. Have you seen the complete works of Van Gogh? There must be more than two or three (or four or five!) hundred that surprise (that fascinate) for their original color combinations. No one has painted more color masterpieces. And the drawing here is not as personal as his. Any little section of a Van Gogh (drawing OR coloring) is unquestionably by him. Every stroke is unique. That isn’t so with these paintings, though they are strongly personal. I found the commonplace mess of colors in the palette of his self-portrait a bit of a blotch on the painting.

    The last one here reminds me of other children’s storybook paintings (which are often wonderful). I don’t know. Van Gogh may have been crazy too but he doesn’t let you know that by putting odd anecdotical elements in the picture but by every twist of his pen or color of his brush. But I always start judging an unknown (to me) painter by finding fault with him because he is not like my known favorites–which is silly. Give me time to learn about Csontvary. Thanks for showing him here.


  3. erikatakacs May 19, 2008 / 14:05

    Helio, I’m glad you liked the post. I’ve just realised, “sunway” goes with your theme. 🙂

    Swallows, maybe I shouldn’t have brought up any comparisons. I think you either like his art or not, there is no middle ground. That self-portrait is an early work, but those eyes are incredibly painted. That old fisherman to me is unforgettable. If you want to see more or his works and larger images, try this link:
    You’ll have to go to ABC index and look up his name there.
    I also found quality photos:
    Finally, like you said, you have to see these paintings in person for the real experience. Thanks for your interest.


  4. kimiam May 20, 2008 / 14:05

    He has fascinating geometry in his work. I love the hand in his self portrait and the humor, too. A natural at the rule of thirds. The solitary cedar has many characters within it.

    The bottom painting is interesting. The creatures in the forground reflect the shape of the treetop. The fisherman, your favorite, is the darkest and most suffering painting of this group.

    I’m not finished, but I have to run for dinner.


  5. giiid May 20, 2008 / 14:05

    It´s interesting to learn about new artists, and Csontváry was new to me. I have read a little more at “google” about him. His style reminds me of illustrations made of artists comming from the same area. Very nice, and very narrative, I think.


  6. erikatakacs May 21, 2008 / 14:05

    Kim, he used complex visionary symbols in his works, and he even explained some of them. That branch on the right looks like an arm holding a knife. It was meant to symbolise society stabbing at him, the artist – he explains. The bottom cedar is a happier theme, more like a celebration of life and the artist, symbolised by the tree. Very impressive and surreal when you stand in front of it.

    Birgitte, you’re absolutely right, he meant them to be narrative. He studied old masters in Italy and was very unhappy with the way they portrayed nature. Thus he travelled to places where he could see nature’s “sunway” colours to their fullest. He was so good at convincing locals about his mission, they came to him to tell him about places he could go for best colours and views. And then they lined up to see the work finished at the studio, in Athens for example, and said nobody painted Athens better then him.

    At home, unfortunately, he was misunderstood and treated like an eccentric fool. After giving up painting, he started writing. I’ve read excerpts of his philosophy, it doesn’t really make sense, that’s where you see the madness.

    I found it tragic that after his death his heirs wanted to sell his paintings by the meter (!) for the good quality canvases he used. I can’t imagine greater humiliation for an artist than that. In the last minute a young architect saved them by buying the whole collection.


  7. 100swallows May 22, 2008 / 14:05

    Do you really think Csontváry is the equal of Van Gogh, erika? They asked Isaac Asimov, the science fiction writer, who he thought was the greatest genius. “I know that’s hard,” said the interviewer. “Not at all,” said Asimov. “If you had asked me who was Number Two I’d have had real difficulty. Einstein, Galileo, Kepler—so many. But Number One? That’s easy: Isaac Newton. He made breakthroughs that changed everything in three fields: physics, optics, mathematics. He stands alone.”
    I feel the same way about Van Gogh. I think he was the greatest painter of the nineteenth century. There are few with such a strong artistic personality, few whose vision is so strong it changes one’s way of seeing nature as well as art. He ranks top in color, in drawing, in mood. But besides, his work is all of one philosophical piece, like the perfect poem, that besides rhyming well and having powerful images, adds up to a truth.
    That doesn’t mean that other painters aren’t very good and don’t have something to give the world. I like Csontvary the more I study him.


  8. erikatakacs May 22, 2008 / 14:05

    Swallows, I don’t believe in greatest. I don’t think I mentioned greatest. Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne, they’re all at the same level to me. And so is this guy and there are probably lots of others, whose names are not even known because they were born outside Western Europe. Some have the good fortune to be discovered while they’re alive, more after they’re dead, ant lots of great painters never become known.

    Secondly, I think it depends on your personality too who you think comes up on top. To me Gauguin’s art is probably just as impressive as Van Gogh’s, although as a person probably Vincent is the more likeable. But Gauguin did not leave extensive correspondance behind, so I’m not judging. Looking at his paintings is hard to imagine the mean, heartless guy they like to depict him. And talking about 19th century, what about Monet, Manet, Goya, Degas, Renoir to list just a few, where do you draw the line?

    Anyway, getting sidetracked here, forget the comparison with Van Gogh, it was too tempting because the similarities in their lives. Sometimes you need to say something daring for people to pay attention. If you enjoyed his paintings, that’s good enough for me.


  9. 100swallows May 22, 2008 / 14:05

    OK, you win. I had forgotten my friend Goya. And my lesson that the more you study each of the “greats”, the more you admire them. Each has to be judged for what he offered. Comparisons are dumb. I guess my “greatness” talk is still a remnant of my old Ruskin reading. He couldn’t have managed without words (and ideas) like “noble” and “great”.


  10. erikatakacs May 23, 2008 / 14:05

    Let’s say it’s a tie. I was ready to give in. 🙂 🙂


  11. kimiam May 23, 2008 / 14:05

    Swallows, Erika, the greatest genius was so innovative and radical in his thinking he was rejected entirely, reduced to suicide or execution and will never be known to us. That is the truth of this world in my humble opinion.


  12. erikatakacs May 24, 2008 / 14:05

    Yeah, Kim. 🙂 The truth of this world is nobody cares, but us, artsy types. 🙂


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